Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 20 September 2007

Taxis Bill: North West Taxi Proprietors and Consumer Council

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Taxis Bill

20 September 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings: 
Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Billy Armstrong 
Mr Trevor Clarke 
Mr David Ford 
Mr Samuel Gardiner 
Mr Ian McCrea

Witnesses: 
Mr Andrew McCartney ) North West Taxi Proprietors 
Mr Eamonn O’Donnell ) 
Mr Eddie Lynch ) Consumer Council 
Ms Claire Toner

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):

I welcome Mr Eamonn O’Donnell and Mr Andrew McCartney from North West Taxi Proprietors (NWTP). It is good to see you. The Committee’s standard format is quite informal: you will have about 10 minutes to make your presentation or to add to the submission that you provided to the Committee, and then Members will ask a few questions for clarification. Your written submission is concise, and you have put a lot of work into it. Your submission is highly focused on the Bill: if you wish to supplement it, you have 10 minutes.

Mr Eamonn O’Donnell (North West Taxi Proprietors):

Before I begin our presentation, I wish to thank the Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the Taxis Bill. Our presentation will outline some background, examine the proposals and specify some of our concerns.

NWTP has been involved in the taxi review from the beginning and at every stage of its progress. We lobbied for the taxi review, responded to the key-stakeholder consultation, responded to the consultation on the regulation of taxis and private-hire vehicles, and we responded to the draft Order in Council. We wrote a briefing paper for MLAs before the debate in June 2007, and we responded to the Environment Committee’s recent request for submissions.

We were very pleased when the Assembly decided to introduce the Taxis Bill early in its mandate. We are impressed with local politicians for taking that decision, and we thank them.

We met the Department of the Environment (DOE), various taxi groups, the Inclusive Mobility and Transport Advisory Committee (Imtac), the Consumer Council and many others in our quest to create a fair and regulated taxi industry for everyone. It is fair to say that we have been involved in the process from the beginning and at every level.

On 3 May 2002, I sat before the previous Environment Committee to lobby for a taxi review and to call for the Department to give proper priority to the taxi industry. It is worth revisiting the reasons behind our call for a review of taxi administration and the introduction of the Taxis Bill.

In 1992, the Sterling Report was completed and given to the Department. That report highlighted the inadequacies of the Department and the fragmentation of the taxi industry, but it was inexplicably shelved. NWTP discovered through research that poor working practices and attitudes existed in the local taxi industry. That was later confirmed by the Department’s own research. It was widely accepted that the taxi industry’s system of administration had failed and was inadequate for dealing with the problems of the industry.

In Derry, where I live, regulated taxi services were outnumbered by the unregulated providers by at least 2:1. The situation was dire. At the start of the legislative process, the taxi industry was heading for total collapse. The current legislative process has pulled that situation back. However, it is vital that you, our local representatives, complete that process and deliver meaningful change that impacts on community safety and proper working conditions for those in the taxi industry.

NWTP welcomes the proposals in the Taxis Bill. We are happy to finally see the taxi review being translated into legislation. In principle, we agree with almost all the content of the proposed Taxis Bill. The changes are necessary to bring the taxi industry into the twenty-first century.

I turn to the specific proposals in the Bill. Clause 1 deals with operator licensing for taxi businesses. That will make office owners more accountable and will put the taxi industry firmly into the mainstream economy. NWTP welcomes the introduction of operator licensing, because it is long overdue and should go some way to addressing many of the bad practices of some office owners. The industry needs operator licensing, but, as in the past, if that measure is not enforced properly, all the good work will amount to nothing.

We agree that all taxi operators should be licensed. We see that as a central plank in the fight against the unregulated sector. Under the current system, sex offenders cannot be taxi drivers, but they can own and run taxi offices. That must change, and we would welcome such a change.

All taxi proprietors should be licensed. Owing to the loophole in the current regulations, standards in the taxi industry have fallen significantly. There is no accountability for taxi offices, and the Bill will introduce accountability and responsibility. That measure will be very effective in tackling the problem of unfair competition.

Clause 20 allows for taxis to pick up passengers on the street without them having booked. The structure of the taxi industry will change to a one-tier system. The Department intends to designate areas where only accessible vehicles will be able to pick up. We believe that a one-tier system is the best option for the local taxi industry. Regulation should maintain a safe standard for the industry, but market forces should dictate who services the different aspects of the diverse market. Regulation for the taxi industry in the North is undertaken by the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) and is confined to the probity and health of drivers and vehicle suitability, roadworthiness and safety, including insurance cover. If the current position were enforced, it would regulate a safe standard for the industry.

Market forces should be allowed to develop and supply services, where there is a demand, and entrepreneurs in different localities could develop sustainable services that are tailored to that locality, covering the mix of urban and rural services. The taxi industry outside Belfast currently operates as a one-tier system, although on paper it is supposed to be a two-tier system. A two-tier system is not practical or enforceable. The law should not cover something that is not enforceable.

We want the taxi industry to be regulated to a safe standard. We want the marketplace deregulated and opened to allow the development of twenty-first-century services. If a taxi driver’s medical and repute checks are in order and his vehicle is up to standard, he has earned the right to work in the taxi industry marketplace. There should be no monopolies.

The new proposals will make it safer for the general public by providing more taxis at key times to pick up on the streets. We do not accept the Transport and General Workers Union analysis that such a measure will cost 400 jobs in Belfast public-hire taxis. Rank designation will protect them. The claim made by the union was sensationalist. It was an attempt to grab headlines on the day of the debate to protect what is an unfair monopoly in the city centre of Belfast. The union’s claim should not deflect the Committee from establishing equity and endorsing the proposal.

Clause 16 of the Taxis Bill proposes that maximum fare rates are set for all taxis. The Department has agreed that it will commission a taxi cost index to establish what a fair fare is. The maximum fare will come from that report. At present, the economics of the taxi industry are wrong. It is imperative that the Department also sets a minimum fare. North West Taxi Proprietors believe that the taxi cost index will establish what a fair fare is; it should be initiated immediately, and maximum and minimum fares should be set. A multi-tariff system should be put in place to cover day, evening and night-time shifts. Holiday rates should also be built into the system. Once the taxi cost index is completed, the cost of taxiing will be officially established here for the first time ever. If the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) wants fair competition on fares, it is important that parameters be set at both the maximum and minimum ends. The minimum wage is currently set. If the taxi cost index sets out the cost of running a taxi, it will not be rocket science to set a minimum fare, equating to a minimum wage for taxi drivers, alongside the maximum fare.

Clause 18 requires all taxis to have taximeters. NWTP agree that all taxis should have taximeters. A taximeter is a measuring instrument for time and distance to set the cost. Taximeters are good for the taxi industry. They give the general public clarity, and, as they are standard in most European taxis, they are good for tourism. Taximeters are fundamental to the success, sustainability and growth of the industry. Implementation of the policy will increase fees for taxi drivers, so it is important that the Department moves at an early stage on two key issues for taxi drivers: improved enforcement and the early introduction of taximeters.

It is important to deal with unregulated taxis and offices that use them before we introduce taximeters. We believe that that will mean that operator licensing, at least in part, will be initiated within the next year. It is also important that the Department shows some understanding of taxi-driver issues and deals with costs by the early introduction of taximeters.

Clause 23(3) proposes that all new taxi drivers must pass a taxi-driving test. Existing taxi drivers will be required to complete one training day a year. The taxi driver’s licence must be re-established as a vocational licence, and that will require the reinstatement of the taxi-driving test. Only new applicants should be required to sit the test and existing taxi drivers should have their grandfather rights respected as they have already invested significant sums of money in becoming taxi drivers.

Clauses 50 and 23(2)(a)(iii) require taxi drivers to complete vocational training at the same time as other vocational lorry and bus licence holders. We expect training in disability awareness, customer care, health and safety and other relevant areas. Cost is an issue for drivers. NWTP admits that the taxi industry has room for improvement in areas such as disability awareness, customer service, health and safety and new innovation. We agree with the proposal, but cost will be an issue for the industry.

The shared-fares scheme — in which taxi drivers are permitted to charge individual passengers separate, but less expensive, fares — is covered by clauses 5 and 6. Shared-fares schemes are to be introduced, where possible, and will provide for some diversity in the development of services. The scheme will also cover the current “black hack” services. Shared-fares schemes are aimed at peak periods when taxis are scarce, or they operate between entertainment centres or busy areas in a town or city centre. The schemes result in a person getting a taxi more quickly, saving money on the standard meter fare, and they may meet interesting fellow travellers. Such schemes help to reduce congestion and pollution and will enable the development of new urban and rural services.

As regards clause 2(5) and the issue of requiring operators to provide more taxis designed to meet the needs of older people and people with disabilities, Disability Discrimination Act requirements insist that each taxi operator provides more accessible vehicles. We expect this to be mandatory for a percentage of each fleet. We believe that the needs of people with disabilities should be addressed. However, it is important that the solution is balanced with the scale of the problem. Cost will be an issue, and it will be important for the Department to take a balanced approach when setting percentages for businesses and when designating areas.

With respect to allowing only accessible vehicles to use taxi ranks, it appears that in certain transport hubs and other designated areas only accessible vehicles will be allowed to ply for hire, and that, after a certain period, only accessible vehicles will be allowed on taxi ranks. Accessible vehicles are expensive to buy and more expensive to run than ordinary taxis. The Department is creating non-financial incentives for those who buy and operate accessible vehicles.

There are other issues covered in the Taxis Bill such as advertising, signage, enforcement, increased penalties, requirements for taxi drivers and operators, vehicle licenses. The main issues will be dealt with within the first three years. Other issues may take longer.

We have specific concerns relating to clause 55. We ask for clarification regarding article 66A of the of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which deals with car sharing arrangements and provides an exemption for people in the rural transport schemes run by DRD to transport people in a similar way to taxis. Has that exemption been written into the Taxis Bill? If so, that will enable people to abuse the scheme, as has happened on a wide scale in the past.

Taxi drivers have to undergo repute and medical checks; their vehicles undergo rigorous tests; they have to carry identification plates, and they will be required to undergo training under the new legislation. Why put us through all of that while providing an exemption that could become a loophole and be abused? Why not run voucher schemes in rural communities and other areas that require special services, and use local taxis to bolster the local industry? If that exemption is to be retained, enforcement will be important.

As regards clause 15(2), the Department has stated that a taxi driver could be fined £1,000 for failing to have proper identification on his taxi. Past inefficiency in the Department concerns us. We have an unwritten agreement with the Department that taxi drivers can work, once they acquire the vehicle inspection notice in the test centre, for a period of up to ten days, and they should then contact the Department to find out why their taxi plates have been delayed. If the Department is serious about fining taxi drivers for failure to display, we need a system that provides drivers with certificates or plates at the test centre.

Our preference is that the plates are replaced with roof signs containing the information. We agree with the principle of plating but would rather have the information displayed at eye level on roof signs. There is also an environmental impact to be considered in destroying more than 20,000 plastic plates annually. A disc, or certificate, could be issued at the test centre.

Changing vehicles is a vital issue for taxi drivers. The current process can keep a taxi driver off the road and losing earnings for two weeks to six weeks, except when the Department grants an amnesty through goodwill. We acknowledge that the merger between DVTA and DVLNI should improve the situation, together with the new legislation that will remove the criminal records office check from the vehicle. We would like to see the Department put a fast-track process in place for taxi drivers who are currently on the Department’s records. The process needs to be speeded up, and provision needs to be written into the Bill.

The cost of change is going to be a massive issue for taxi drivers. That can be illustrated by examining clause 30. Under the legislation, taxi drivers will be charged additional fees. We accept that fees must increase so that the new system can be introduced, but we would like some understanding from the Department about taxi drivers’ costs. We would like the Department of the Environment to spell out the time frame of change in an action plan. With regard to clause 8, we do not want all the costs to be introduced to taxi drivers without the introduction of meters in all taxis.

We would like clauses 18 and 30 to be linked at the implementation stage. We are pleased that the Department and the Committee are bringing the administration of the taxi industry into the twenty first century. However, we are concerned that the taxi enforcement team consists of only five people for the whole industry. Although a bigger pool of 21 can be tapped into on occasions, that is not good enough. All the good work of the Department and the Assembly will come to nothing if the legislation is not properly enforced. We would like a new enforcement strategy that instils confidence and has a local element of enforcement or compliance. Given that the taxi review is five years old, what is the action plan for implementation? What resources will the Department put into that?

In the consultation, the Department was vague on designated areas. We need a common-sense approach and more detail before implementation. Our fear is that whole areas of city centres and towns will be designated out of bounds to non-accessible taxis.

In conclusion, NWTP welcomes the Taxis Bill. We are happy that the Department is taking steps to update policy and the administration of taxis. The taxi review and the Taxis Bill are long overdue. We agree, in principle, with almost all the proposed Taxis Bill. However, we have concerns because we do not have the detail. The legislation is enabling, but our main concern is that it is so open. Although we understand that more consultation will follow, it points up the inherent difficulty that we have in giving a complete welcome to the Bill.

The Committee for the Environment should endorse the Taxis Bill and do all that it can to ensure that it receives Royal Assent, so that the development of the taxi industry can move ahead as soon as possible and the Department can get on with planning the programme of change that will bring the taxi industry into the twenty first century. I thank the Committee for taking time to listen to us and for giving us the opportunity to express our opinion.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for that well-constructed, cogently argued submission.

Mr I McCrea:

I reiterate what the Chairperson said. It was a well put-together response that dealt with almost every clause, which helps the Committee to understand any potential problems with the Bill.

There is concern that a one-tier system may put sole operators out of business if large companies can come in and take business off the street. You also touched on the benefits that you have reaped from tourism. Will there be room for everyone if a one-tier system is introduced?

Secondly, you mentioned setting meters at the maximum fare rate. There would be no obligation for anyone to discount if the meter was set at the maximum rate. I do not know how that discount would work, given that taxi drivers, quite rightly, want to make as much money as possible, as does any business. Obviously, it would be down to the individuals or the companies.

Mr O’Donnell:

There is room for everyone in the one-tier system. Operator licensing is imperative because there is nothing in place to make operators accountable. Many of the industry’s problems, including the growth of the unregulated sector, have arisen from the lack of operator licensing.

As with others, if the Department takes a common-sense approach to the sole-operator issue and if there is good consultation with the taxi industry, there is an opportunity. We hear, mainly from rural operators, that sole operators in each location could, together, cope with operator licensing under a percentage system. If not, in other words, a sole operator should be forced to provide the service. As long as a sole operator can contact someone in a village with access to a vehicle to provide the service needed, that is enough to cover that clause. Without sole-operator licensing, a loophole will be created that could be abused, and there has been massive abuse in the past.

The second issue is the maximum fare. Maximum fares and discounts are not the preference of the taxi proprietors. Our preference is a maximum and a minimum fare: the taxi cost index would set a fare for the region, and we would all work from that. However, a report by the Office of Fair Trading recommends competition, and the argument is that someone could go on a taxi journey, find at the end of it that the fare is the maximum, and argue the price. It was put to the Office of Fair Trading that someone filling a trolley with groceries in a supermarket would not negotiate the prices when their shopping came to be rung through at the checkout. Taxi proprietors also find that unacceptable, and our counter argument is that, if there is to be one rate, all meters must be set at that. They cannot be set at the lowest rate, because there would not be one.

Mr Boylan:

Thank you for your presentation. You have outlined many issues, and I hope that they have all been noted. Could you expand on fast tracking and on designated areas?

Mr Andrew McCartney ( North West Taxi Proprietors);

Fast tracking is a big concern in the taxi industry. If a taxi driver writes off his or her car, or it is burnt, or, for whatever reason, the vehicle can no longer be used as a taxi, that situation is out of his or her control. The driver has to buy a new car, and re-apply for a PSV licence, and the process can take up to six weeks. Even if the driver knows someone in the Department who can put it through more quickly, it can take two weeks. Therefore, a taxi driver is off the road from between two to six weeks, and there is absolutely no mechanism written into the Bill to fast track the process.

Every week, taxi drivers face the possibility of being off the road. If a driver forgets to apply for a PSV licence, that is his or her fault; however, if, for reasons that are out of the driver’s control, the vehicle no longer works, provision should be written into the Bill to fast track that process. There would have to be very strict criteria, but there should be some mechanism whereby the vehicle could be presented at a test centre, tested, and the paperwork done in reverse. If there is a problem, the licence can then be revoked, as opposed to the current situation in which the Department takes the safe option of going through the bureaucratic process and issuing the licence six weeks later. No driver can afford to be off the road for six weeks, earning no money. That has not even been considered, but it must be. It is perhaps not too high on the scale, but, from a practical point of view, it is a possibility that taxi drivers face every week.

Mr O‘Donnell:

NWTP fears that the Bill is vague on designated areas. They work on a ranking space where accessible taxis are allowed to queue up, but saloon cars will be allowed to pick up at a designated distance. We are afraid that four or five places in a town or city centre will be chosen as designated areas and that the whole city centre will, therefore, be designated as out of bounds. I suggest that the departmental officials use their common sense and talk to representatives from the local taxi industry to work out what the designated areas should be.

Mr T Clarke:

Mr O’Donnell referred to the test for new drivers, but he seems to be against the one-day training course for existing drivers. Perhaps I misunderstood him, but would that examination not surely be a good way of maintaining an excellent service in the taxi industry?

Mr O’Donnell:

You picked me up wrongly. We are in favour of the training because we accept that there is room for improvement in the industry.

Mr T Clarke:

Are you happy for existing drivers to do the one-day training course?

Mr A McCartney:

We are opposed to the introduction of a driving test for existing licence holders; we are not against the one-day training course.

Mr T Clarke:

In the past, some drivers — although others might call them cowboys — have been given taxi licences even though they have not received adequate training. In fact, it has been said that the licences were given out like Guinness labels. If that is the case, the obligation on those drivers to do the complete test would iron out lots of problems in the system.

Mr A McCartney:

The difficulty that I have with that might sound like a contradiction. Many people who have invested in taxiing as a job and a livelihood might not pass the test and would be out of work. We are trying to be all inclusive. Many people in the industry — even the operators — have played their part in destroying it over the past number of years. You called them cowboys, but I call them pirates. If they license themselves, they should be part of the process: they should not be excluded. The Department decided to do away with the driving test and give out licences. Existing drivers should not have to do the test, but drivers who join the industry hereafter should. However, every driver — existing and new — should be trained in disability and customer awareness.

Mr T Clarke:

Mr McCartney’s comments about drivers who have invested heavily in the industry but who might not pass the test make me fearful. For the sake of the industry, the Bill should enforce the test. I know that people have made heavy investments, but if those individuals are not of the standard required to transport the public, they should not be in the industry. I am almost afraid to say that, but that is why I agree with that part of the legislation. The Department was wrong to do away with the test.

Mr A McCartney:

That is what I meant when I said that my comments might sound like a contradiction. However, it is about defending people’s rights, and the Department has to make a decision on that. If it goes back on its decision, many people — not just one person — will be affected. The taxi industry has always been honest enough to say that there are gaps in its service — even with regard to disability awareness — but the Department has created those. Therefore, the Department must be careful when drafting the legislation, because some people might be put out of work. We may have to deal with a few contradictions to protect those who are working. There are worse things happening than taxis being driven by people who are not properly trained to drive; for example, people who do not even have licences are taxiing. We have to draw a line in the sand and get a fully regulated, professional service.

Mr O’Donnell:

For instance, some people are capable of driving taxis, but they might be slow learners or have literacy problems, so they must be protected.

Mr Gardiner:

I compliment the witnesses on their professional presentation; thank you for that. You have suggested areas that the Department can consider and hopefully amend.

The Chairperson:

We could not finish on a finer point. Thank you for travelling from Derry to make your valuable presentation.

I welcome Claire Toner and Eddie Lynch from the Consumer Council. The Committee has limited time and a lot of business to do; nonetheless, the Consumer Council’s contribution is extremely valuable in bringing the voice of the consumers to the Committee. The Committee hears similar and conflicting messages from the taxi industry.

Mr Eddie Lynch (Consumer Council):

Thank you for the opportunity to come before the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to present the views of passengers on this subject, and I will try to keep my presentation brief. I will focus on the views of the Consumer Council and on why the Taxis Bill is important to consumers here. I will also focus on areas of the Bill where the council feels that there should be some amendment. Members should have copies of our presentation. I will outline the role of the Consumer Council in the process, the impact that the Taxis Bill could have on consumers and taxi users, the process so far and the need for changes.

The Consumer Council is a statutory body and represents passengers travelling to, from and within Northern Ireland. It has been involved with the Department and others in the review since 2002. Early in the review, the Consumer Council conducted consumer research and produced a report, ‘Talking about Taxis’, which fed into the review of taxis and outlined the key issues and concerns faced by consumers who use the industry. Throughout the process, the Consumer Council felt that the consultation was very well handled by the Department and officials. It has always had an opportunity to speak to the Department during the various stages and put its views across. Indeed, several areas that caused concern have been addressed, and I will refer to them later.

What does the taxi industry need? The Consumer Council strongly supports the key objectives of the Taxis Bill because it believes that the current standards are not high enough for consumers and must be raised across the industry. More legal taxi operators must be introduced, and we need to tackle and remove illegal operators. We need improved consumer protection, awareness to enable passengers to make informed decisions and choices and a framework for competitive and reasonable fares for all, both for the industry and for the passenger.

Why is change needed? Over one million passenger journeys are made annually. Research carried out by the Consumer Council a few years ago showed that 5% of consumers use taxis as their main mode of travel, which is significant when compared to the 4% who use buses and the 1% who use trains. Taxis have a key role in transporting people about their business.

The research also highlighted real concerns about charging. Around 51% of consumers believed that public-hire taxis may have overcharged them at least once, and 37% of consumers believed that they had been overcharged by private-hire taxis. That highlighted not necessarily that taxis were overcharging, but real consumer confusion over what is a fair price. The Bill is needed to ensure a proper and fair system of charging and to ensure that consumers know what they have to pay and how to take action if they believe that they have been overcharged.

There is a lack of consumer knowledge about rights and protection. More than half of the consumers who made a complaint were unhappy about how that complaint was received. Many felt that there was no avenue to progress it.

Some key issues emerged from the consultation process. Initially, it was proposed that roof signs should be removed from taxis. We strongly opposed that, believing that they are vital for passenger information and safety. We are pleased that the Department of the Environment has changed its mind on that issue, and we welcome the new suggestions. Roof signs could be used more effectively and could include licence plates, making them more visible. We are keen to work with the Department on that proposal.

Accessibility is another key issue. We argued that Northern Ireland consumers require a mixture of fleets and vehicles to meet various needs and disabilities. A single solution would not meet all of those requirements. Accessible taxis, or “wheelchair taxis”, would not meet the needs of all consumers. We agree with the Department’s approach that a proportion of taxi operators’ fleets should be wheelchair-accessible, leaving other taxis to meet other needs.

We have some concerns about operator licensing, particularly in regard to sole operators in rural areas. I will touch on that issue later.

In general, any concerns that we raised with the Department have resulted in safeguards being put in place throughout the Bill. Although the Taxis Bill provides a framework for change, the devil will be in the detail. Many issues still need to be teased out to get it right.

In summary, the status quo is not an option. There must be a more passenger-focused system that meets the three principles of accessibility, or the three As: accessible vehicles that meet the needs of all passengers; vehicle availability when passengers wish to travel; and affordability. In the future, we want consideration to be given to how concessionary fares could be extended to the taxi industry.

Taxis must be available at the point of need. We must work to ensure that, for every passenger, a vehicle that meets requirements is available when it is wanted and at a fair price.

I have some specific points about the Bill itself. In the area of operator licensing, consideration must be given to the needs of sole operators — particularly in rural areas. That matter is addressed in the Bill; however, we want reassurances that the Department will ensure that those operators are not overburdened by huge costs, which would have a negative impact on consumers in such areas.

Although passenger complaints are mentioned in regard to the operator licence, a robust complaint system must be put in place. In addition to operators having to have a complaints procedure, it is essential that there be a further avenue to pursue if passengers are unhappy with the taxi company’s initial response. In other areas, that is a role for the Consumer Council. It is vital to ensure that passengers are adequately protected.

We welcome clause 10(4), which states that:

“The Department shall take into consideration … any recommendations made by the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland.”

That is an important initiative. However, recourse to the Consumer Council should be embedded in other parts of the legislation, and its role enshrined. In particular, the Bill should state that the Consumer Council should be consulted in relation to fare-setting and maximum fares; passenger information; accessibility standards; and the handling of passenger complaints. Currently, that happens in many of those areas. We have close links and discussions with the Department of the Environment; however, if the Bill is to be passenger-focused, the passenger representative must be enshrined in it.

Ms Claire Toner (Consumer Council):

We are aware that there has been a separate consultation on taxi-driver training, and we have responded to that.

The Consumer Council welcomes the additional training proposed for drivers and believes that it will help to raise standards in the industry, as well as meet the needs of passengers. Disability-awareness training is a particular issue for those passengers and will help to address their needs. The Consumer Council has recently received feedback from passengers with disabilities, regarding driver attitudes, so disability-awareness training is vital. However, the Consumer Council recognises that a balance needs to be struck, so that the costs of that training are managed and the benefits of the system to passengers are not outweighed by increases in fares.

Mr Lynch:

To finish, there are two points. First, enforcement — which has been mentioned already — is central to the success of the Taxis Bill. The Department needs sufficient resources to ensure that there is compliance and that standards are met across the industry. Raising standards is very important for the industry, but we recognise that it is a challenge. Therefore, as they move to improve service for passengers, those working in the industry need protection from damage by illegal operators. The Consumer Council urges that the Department be given the necessary resources to ensure that the Bill is implemented fully.

Secondly, to date, the Consumer Council has welcomed the implementation and monitoring of the process by the Assembly, and it welcomes the Committee’s role in overseeing progress on the issue. As the current system does not meet the needs of passengers, the Consumer Council urges the Committee to take an active role in setting timescales and in the monitoring process, so that passengers can benefit from the changes as soon as possible.

Consumers must have feedback; they have played a part in the whole review and given their views, so communication with them is vital. We would like to see the “what”, the “when” and the “why” addressed; consumers must be told what key changes they can expect, when they can expect them, and why they are happening and what their impact will be. The Consumer Council looks forward to working with the Department and other stakeholders, to ensure that the Taxis Bill meets its objectives.

We thank members for their attention and are happy to answer any questions that they may have.

(Mr Deputy Chairperson [Mr Boylan] in the Chair)

Mr Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. Does anyone have any questions?

Mr Ford:

The Committee has heard a lot about accessibility in the earlier presentation, and the Consumer Council talked about regulating the one-person operator. If there is a situation such as that, and we accept the idea that only a proportion of taxis should be fully accessible, how do you decide what the necessary proportion is? Furthermore, could that proportion vary between the single operator — or possibly two or three operators sharing in a type of partnership — in a rural area, and the big Belfast firms? How can a reasonable balance be produced in a situation where not every operator has to be fully accessible?

Mr Lynch:

That is a very good question, and one with which we have struggled. Initially, we thought of exemptions for sole operators, in relation to providing fully accessible taxis. After speaking to the Department, we had concerns that that route could open up a loophole for the industry to register a number of drivers as sole operators. We felt that it would have a negative impact on efforts to increase accessibility standards across the industry. Further discussion is needed on that issue, and we are happy to work with the Department on it.

The question of proportions has to be looked at on an area-by-area basis, to see what is needed. Again, referring to our principles about accessibility, what is important is that a taxi that meets the needs of the passenger is available when he or she wants to travel. That is where the level of proportion is vital. The situation in Belfast must be viewed differently to that in rural areas. We must examine the system again to see how it will operate.

There is no easy answer. There must be incentives that encourage the industry to provide accessible taxis. We welcome the proposals to develop taxi ranks and to establish interchanges at such strategic points as public transport stations, which only accessible taxis will be able to enter. The industry must be offered business benefits and incentives to encourage it to go down that route, so that it considers the provision of accessible taxis worthwhile.

Mr Ford:

That leads us to regulation. Last week, we heard significant complaints from Belfast public-hire drivers that taxi ranks do not work, because there is no enforcement and because ordinary private-hire saloon cars hover around — if not use — the ranks. Without a proper regulatory regime, how can one achieve a balance and offer incentives? It appears that the Department is failing — at least, according to the Belfast public-hire drivers.

Mr Lynch:

The current system is failing and in no way meets the general needs of passengers, including those who require wheelchair access to taxis. We are trying to develop a public transport network that is accessible to everyone. We are introducing fully accessible trains and buses, and our focus is on connectivity. We want people with disabilities and older people with reduced mobility to be able to get from A to B. Many journeys involve more than one bus or train service; people are required to use more than one mode of transport. We recognise that unless all links in the chain are accessible, some journeys cannot be completed.

I agree that the current situation does not meet the needs of passengers, particularly those with disabilities.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation. It is important that the Consumer Council has a major input in the discussion.

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